Kirov leads the Illinois Philharmonic in a rich and rousing Mahler First

Sun Mar 11, 2018 at 4:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Phlharmonic Orchestra in music of Mahler and Bernstein Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Chuck Moses
Stilian Kirov conducted the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra in music of Mahler and Bernstein Saturday night in Palos Heights. Photo: Chuck Moses

Is it possible to have a great Mahler performance when the orchestra playing isn’t always that great?

Such were one’s thoughts walking out of Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights Saturday night where the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra presented a rousing performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 under conductor Stilian Kirov.

For even a solid suburban orchestra like the IPO to tackle a Mahler symphony is an ambitious programming move–especially for Kirov, a music director in his first season. First, it’s an expensive logistical proposition, having to hire extra players to field the large forces. But mainly Mahler’s First Symphony is an epic and intensely difficult work with a myriad of challenges for all sections of the orchestra.

Even making allowances for the inevitable slips one encounters in regional ensembles, there were more than the usual array of mishaps Saturday night. Trumpet cracks were regular occurrences, along with a litany of woodwind squeaks and squawks; one will charitably draw a veil over the hapless double-bass solo in the third movement.

And yet even with the accidents and lack of consistent polish, the performance was wholly compelling from the hushed sound of nature in the opening bars to the triumphant final peroration. Go figure.

Much of that credit goes to the IPO’s young music director. In his most impressive local performance to date, Kirov showed himself a Mahlerian to be reckoned with. He had a firm architectural grasp of the vast 55-minute canvas. Tempos were skillfully judged throughout and the dramatic peaks and yearning lyricism held in a dexterous balance. 

While perhaps not ideally hushed–and the too-far-offstage trumpets were virtually inaudible–the opening pages of nature awakening in the first movement made atmospheric impact, drawing the attentive Ozinga Chapel audience into the musical journey to come. The rustic charm was consistently manifest and the climax strong and effective without going over the top. The main theme of the second movement went with beefy swagger from the lower strings, with the contrast of the nostalgic trio given a nice Old World lilt.

After that unfortunate bass solo, the third movement proved evocative and unsettling as it should. Kirov underlined the parade of grotesqueries well with the various episodes given vivid coloring; the “Jewish wedding” music, as Leonard Bernstein called it, was especially charming and piquant.  

The IPO’s music director was most impressive in the finale. The ebb and flow was handled with uncommon skill by Kirov and the lyrical episodes given ample breadth rather than being hurried through on the way to the next climax. There was a sense of a holistic, expansive performance and the ultimate payoff at the final bars felt both hard-won and inevitable.  Even with its raucous elements, the massive coda with the two timpanis roaring and the seven horns standing made its full blazing and triumphant impact.

It was clear that the core IPO musicians were playing to the best of their capabilities, and likely beyond, for their new conductor. That effort and focused concentration and intensity made this Mahler performance a more exciting experience than many a more polished performance, for all of its untidy moments. The new principal horn Lee Shirer was a steady and gleaming presence throughout. And Azusa Tashiro’s appointment as concertmaster seems to be making the fine IPO strings even richer and more responsive.

As Kirov noted in his user-friendly introduction, music of Leonard Bernstein made an apt prelude to the Mahler symphony for two reasons–first, to mark the 100th birthday season of the American composer-conductor, and second, due to the fact that Bernstein’s advocacy and recordings of Mahler’s symphonies in the 1960s did much to usher in the Mahler renaissance that continues today.

Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story was a populist choice. The opening section could have used a lighter rhythmic touch Saturday, there was a shaky horn solo in “Somewhere,” and the “Mambo!” shouts from the orchestra were decidedly half-hearted (though the finger-snapping was on the money).

But for the most part, Kirov led a vital, energized performance. The IPO strings brought ardent warmth to the lyrical moments (“Somewhere” and the concluding “I Have a Love”) and brass and percussion kicked up plenty of high-stepping energy in the Latin dance episodes.

The Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra closes its season 7:30 p.m. April 14 at  Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights. Stilian Kirov conducts the IPO in Gity Razaz’s Arizona Dreams, Dvořák’s Czech Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

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